More than 20 months before any real votes are cast, Republican Senate leader Bill Frist of Tennessee won a straw poll on Saturday of party activists choosing their early favorite in the 2008 White House race.
Frist, who packed the home-state crowd with supporters wearing blue "Frist is my leader" buttons, won nearly 37 percent of the 1,427 votes cast by delegates to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was second with 14.4 percent, while Sen. George Allen of Virginia finished tied for third with President George W. Bush, whose name was added to the ballot by 10.3 percent of the delegates at the urging of Arizona Sen. John McCain.
The poll results, while meaning little in the long run, could give the top two finishers, Frist and Romney, a boost in recognition heading into the 2008 campaign.
The win for Frist followed a tough year in which he became the target of a federal probe of his stock sales and was criticized for his Senate leadership.
Frist and Romney were among six possible presidential candidates who spoke to the gathering of nearly 2,000 activists from 26 states in what served as an unofficial kickoff to the 2008 race. All registered delegates were eligible to vote in the poll, sponsored by political tip sheet The Hotline.
The potential candidates who attended the convention were Frist, Romney, Allen, McCain, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
McCain, in a show of support for Bush that rivals said was an acknowledgment he would not perform well in the poll, told his supporters to write in Bush's name. McCain, who lost to Bush in the race for the 2000 Republican nomination, still managed to win 4.6 percent of the vote.
Huckabee was next with 3.8 percent, followed by New York Gov. George Pataki at 2.7 percent, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- another write-in -- with 2.2 percent and Brownback at 1.5 percent.
Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney said it was "shocking" that Republicans backed Frist in the poll and called him "the poster child for the Republican culture of corruption and incompetence."